PRESIDENT Bush has set relatively modest and limited goals for his discussions with Saddam Hussein, to be conducted over the next six weeks through their foreign ministers.
In his press conference opening statement last week, Bush first made a cogent explanation of America's national interest in stopping Persian Gulf aggression. Now nobody can legitimately complain that he's not "articulating" his policy; the pity is that he still shies from reading those words in an unsoundbiteable prime-time speech.
Despite the strength in the tone of the president's presentation of his position, there is good news for Saddam in the Bush bottom line: "I am not suggesting discussions that will result in anything less than complete withdrawal from Kuwait, restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government and freedom for all hostages."
What about reparations for the grand heist and rape? What about war crimes trials to deter future atrocities? What about the destruction of poison-gas, germ-warfare and atomic-bomb facilities, followed by "very highly intrusive" inspections to assure the world that it will not be threatened again -- by the nuclear fire next time?
The president's dismayingly limited bottom line pre-emptively concedes these goals, which seem to fall outside what he construes to be his U.N. mandate. He says "we seek the stability and security of this critical region" -- but seems prepared to settle for the enumerated withdrawal, restoration and hostage-freeing.
Worse, Bush opens the negotiations bazaar by inviting Saddam "to discuss all aspects of the gulf crisis." He knows the Iraqis will take "all aspects" to mean that he is prepared to listen to linkage.
To Americans, the president is saying his purpose is to impress upon the Iraqi dictator the implacable alternative of a failure to withdraw. To Saddam Hussein, he is saying he is willing to listen to Iraq pose as the champion of the claims of Palestinians in Israel's West Bank and of Lebanese just conquered by Syria.
In the light of the limited-goal bottom line and the "all aspects" invitation to linkage, what can we expect of the coming meetings?
In the Oval Office, Bush will impress the Saudis in the room with our resolve, and then listen to the propaganda line that Iraq's foreign minister has been touting from the start: that Iraq will give up its fresh conquest only when its enemies give up their past gains. Iraq is confident it won't happen, but can thus appear to be the saviour of dispossessed Arabs while it digests Kuwait's wealth.
This story of that first meeting will be "Bush issues final warning, rejects linkage." Then attention will shift to the more dramatic meeting, near the deadline of K-Day, with Secretary of State Baker in the office of Saddam Hussein.
At that historic session, the Iraqi will reiterate his sweeping peace offer: comprehensive conference, everybody withdraws from everywhere, hostages all freed. Baker will reply: Get out of Kuwait first.
But what about "all aspects" under discussion? Saddam Hussein will point to Bush's expressed hope that the resolution of the Kuwait aggression will lead to Middle East peace; how about a deal forcing Israel back that the U.N. would love? Baker will say we can talk later -- perhaps add some promissory body language -- but insist Iraq first meet the announced minimum conditions.
That's the potential face-saver. Saddam could say the Americans hinted to him that a vast deal could be made if only he took the first step; therefore, he was pulling out of Kuwait and awaiting the American "response." And Bush would vainly lean on the Israelis, who are not crazy enough to give up security in the face of a growing regional threat.
Saddam Hussein would remain in power by thundering that he had been betrayed; he would plow his new oil revenues into nuclear missile production. In a few years, he would snatch back Kuwait and bite into Saudi Arabia, knowing we would not put American cities at risk.
Sound logical? He may just exploit his new opening this way. That is why he must not be able to claim any secret understanding in his Baker meeting -- or be able to play an embarrassing portion of a secretly made tape of that meeting, as he likes to do.
Our only protection: open diplomacy. Telecast the meeting. Let the white light of publicity serve history -- and keep everybody honest.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.